It was another of those infernal afternoons, loaded with free agents, rookies and other new faces, currently threatening the sanity of equipment men in the National Football League. Jack Geyer, a Los Angeles Rams public relations man, had called Don Hewitt, the team's locker-room quartermaster, to find out which jersey numbers would be assigned to a glut of new arrivals at the team's Fullerton, Calif. training camp. Hewitt, for whom the bloated rosters and number switching caused by the players' strike has been a personal affront, went down his list and finally exploded. "Damn musical-chair idiots! I'm gonna give the next guy No. 110!"
Apart from the numbers game and a memorable practice that produced 11 fumbles between a quarterback and center, the Rams did better than most teams during the 42 days of picketing. Other clubs experienced insults, vindictive trades, fistfights and a bitterness that threatens to extend into the regular season. None of those evils befell the Rams, who boast of a concept called "The Rams Family" and talent enough to take the next Super Bowl. Were their professional existence more harsh, their future less bright and Carroll Rosenbloom a tyrant rather than the game's most benevolent owner, it would be easier for the Rams players to hard-line it. As it is, those who believe the players' strike has been broken point to the Rams as prima facie evidence.
When the team's veterans reported to camp for the 14-day "cooling-off" period, management and the local press alike felt they were there for good. That opinion may have been premature, for the Rams' grievances were directed at the structure of the NFL, not at Rosenbloom, whose concern for his players made a militant union stance uncomfortable for many of them. "It would be simple," said one player, "if all of us had played for someone like George Halas." It is tempting to suggest that if every owner enjoyed a relationship with his team similar to Rosenbloom's with the Rams, there would have been no strike.
There is also the nagging feeling that for Los Angeles the ultimate cost of a protracted strike may be the Super Bowl. Under Coach Chuck Knox, the Rams won a division championship last season before stumbling against Dallas in a snake-bitten playoff game. Leading the NFL in total offense, total defense and scoring, they had a 12-2 record, the finest in the club's history.
"It's harder for a good team to fight this battle than a dog team," said Tom Mack, the All-Pro guard who is also the team's player rep. "You have more to lose. A team that isn't going anywhere can afford to stay out longer. Another thing that has been hard for us is understanding that other owners don't treat their players the way Carroll treats us. It's difficult to resist an attitude when you haven't been affected by it."
Which is not to say that the Rams have forgotten the reason for the strike and will merely write off the experience as a failed tactic if no agreement is reached by Aug. 28, when the cooling-off period ends.
"Many of us feel we may be walking out again," said Linebacker Isiah Robertson, "although no one wants to say so. Because of that, it looks as though a lot of guys who support the strike and believe in the things we want are daydreaming. I look around in practice and I see it. It's something that's hanging over our heads. It's on a lot of guys' minds."
"The fact we're in camp," said Defensive Back Dave Elmendorf, "is a show of good faith. It has nothing to do with us losing the strike. There's no way we'll play the season without an agreement."
As Mack is painfully aware, that hard-line attitude is unpopular in Southern California, which is hardly a citadel of trade unionism. The target of hate mail, Mack also suffered the defection of his children's baby-sitter after a newspaper quoted his view that the Teamsters Union could become involved with the Players Association. "When her father read that," Mack said, "he wouldn't let her sit for us anymore." Ironically, Mack is a moderate in the Players Association, whose members have sometimes criticized him for not taking a tougher stance against management.
"I'll be honest about it," he said. "The biggest thing for me is winning the championship. The only way to do that is for me to keep my team together. I knew I couldn't get them to all go in together, so I wanted to make sure I kept them all out together. I've tried to approach this thing by what is right and what is realistic."